In 1579, an African man now known by the name of Yasuke arrived in Japan. Little did he know that five centuries later, the world would still be talking about him.
Much about this legend who inspired Netflix’s new anime series Yasuke remains a mystery. The country in Africa where he hailed from cannot be confirmed to date although most historians have debated that he hails from Mozambique, Ethiopia or Nigeria. There is neither a verifiable record of his life after 1582. But Yasuke was indeed a real-life Black samurai who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of the most important feudal lords in Japanese history and a unifier of the country.
History has it that Yasuke arrived in Japan in 1579 with an Italian Jesuit named Alessandro Valignano. They came through India, with Yasuke in service to Valignano most likely as a bodyguard in disguise. This is because as a priest he wasn’t allowed to have any soldiers or guards, but they were allowed to have manservants who were very good with using weapons. So, in 1581, Valignano and Yasuke made their way to what was then the capital city, Kyoto, to meet with Nobunaga and request permission to leave Japan. It was on this trip that Yasuke crossed paths with the feudal lord.
Some historians disagree that Yasuke was a slave under Valignano. Oral history speculates that given the circumstances of how the African man arrived at his employment with Valignano, it’s possible that Yasuke was enslaved as a child and taken from Africa to India as a military slave or an indentured soldier, but he probably got his freedom before meeting Valignano. Hence making him a free actor.
Standing at more than six feet tall and described as having the strength of over 10 men, Yasuke left a strong impression on Nobunaga and he was talked into staying back in Japan. It was recorded that it seems he was a confidant of Nobunaga as they found both of them most times talking.
By the way back then, the definition of Samurai was fluid. Anybody who took up weapons on behalf of a lord could technically call themself a samurai, or could be called a samurai.
What happened to Yasuke?
According to history records, en route to a battle in 1582, Nobunaga was ambushed by his general Akechi Mitsuhide. This would come to be known as the Honnō-ji Incident, in which Nobunaga died in the Honnō-ji temple on June 21. Nobunaga was at the Honnō-ji temple at the time of the ambush. He performed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide that involves slicing open the abdomen. It was regarded as a way of retaining honour even in defeat. This culture agrees that instead of being killed, performing the seppuku sends the message of being in control of one’s death. The ritual sometimes involves an act of kaishakunin, meaning a designated “second” beheads the individual. Slicing the abdomen is a symbolic action to show the purity of your intentions.
Shortly after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Oda Nobutada, the lord’s son who was nearby. At that point, Yasuke fights again, the second battle of that same morning. It is said that Nobutada’s son had 200 men while Akechi had 13,000 leading to his son also performing the seppuku when he realized there was no way out. With Yasuke and his men outnumbered and the feudal lord and his son dead on the battlefield, the last record of Yasuke is that he was escorted by Akechi’s troops (the enemy) to a Jesuit mission house.